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Press Release: Government of Japan to Honor Professor Emerita Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi

Professor Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi will be honored with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon for her outstanding lifelong contributions to the promotion of the civil rights, sociological study, and well-being of Japanese Americans and others. She is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY), the founding president of the Asian American Federation, Inc., and a past chair of the New York Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


The conferment ceremony for Dr. Nishi will take place at the official residence of the Japanese Ambassador and Consul-General in New York on June 5th.

Dr. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi was a “true pioneer of Japanese American Studies” in the turbulent times during and after WWII and a “beacon of the community,” serving as both a leading scholar and a tireless social activist throughout her career and to the present.

-Advocacy and Civil Rights for Japanese Americans-

While a university student during World War II, she gave more than three hundred and fifty speeches to help prepare public receptivity to the resettlement of Japanese Americans from the incarceration camps. In Chicago, she, with her father, Tahei Matsunaga, was instrumental in establishing the Chicago Resettlers Committee, now known as the Japanese American Service Committee. Before joining academia, she worked as a research writer for the Chicago Defender, headed the Chicago Council against Racial and Religious Discrimination, and directed research for the social programs of the National Council of Churches. Besides her academic career as sociologist, she served on numerous boards, such as United Way of New York City, and was a consultant to many organizations and public agencies, including the Congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. She has also been a long-time member the Japanese Americans Citizenship League, the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the United States. In 1989, Dr. Nishi co-founded the Asian American Federation to enable the many Asian ethnic groups in New York to work together in advocating and pooling resources for this rapidly growing population. Under her leadership as founding president, for six years, the Federation brought needed services to many Japanese Americans, as well as public attention to their concerns. Since the late 1980s, she has also contributed to developing the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, as a member of the National Scholarly Advisory Council and of the New York Advisory Council.

-Japanese American Studies-

Her research at Santa Anita Assembly Center, where she was incarcerated during the war, observing the development of informal educational activities in the hastily constructed camp, was the first of her studies of Japanese Americans and their wartime treatment. Other studies included those on early resettlement in St. Louis and the post-war re-establishment of an ethnic community in Chicago. Meanwhile, she was enrolled in the sociology program at the University of Chicago, where she received her doctorate in 1963. From 1965 until her retirement in 1999, she was a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She taught some of the first courses on Asian American Studies there and served as a mentor to a generation of scholars. With her expertise on institutionalized discrimination against Japanese Americans and other ethnic minorities, she was invited by local and federal government agencies, private companies, and nonprofits to serve as a consultant, applying her research insights to various social issues in the U.S. and internationally. In 1982, Dr. Nishi initiated the development of the Exchange of Scholars Program between Tokyo Metropolitan University and the Graduate Center. She hosted many scholars from Japan and was the first research scholar from the Graduate Center to go to Tokyo Metropolitan University, where she gave lectures in graduate seminars and conducted research on Japanese Americans who went to Japan at the end of WWII. As a professor emerita, she is currently principal investigator of a national study, “Recovery and Hidden Injuries: Wartime Incarceration and the Life Course of Japanese Americans,” which compares the long-term effects on those who left the camps to go to the Army, college, or work, and those who remained segregated at Tule Lake during wartime. She is preparing this research for publication.

Dr. Nishi was born in Los Angeles to Hatsu Nishi Matsunaga and Tahei Matsunaga, who came from Kumamoto, Japan. She was married to the late Ken Nishi, the painter-sculptor, and is the mother of five children and the grandparent of six.

Submitted on: MAY 1, 2009

Category: Press Room, Sociology